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FILM STUDY: Inside Kevin Durant’s special 45-point performance against the Magic

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Sometimes we just have to take a second and marvel at what we’re watching.

Kevin Durant was worthy of that type of praise on Monday.

“When you’re seeing something special occur in front of you, you do your best to still be engaged, but it’s hard not to stare and just watch,” said Kyrie Irving about Durant after the 109-102 victory against the Orlando Magic. “It’s an honor to be a part of; I’m grateful to be his teammate.”

Durant’s 45 points against the Magic were by far a season-high for his Nets, and he did so while missing just five shots the whole night on 24 attempts. Basketball Reference’s game score, which grades out a player’s productivity in a single game, rated Durant’s showing against Orlando as one of the twelve-best performances of the NBA season with a 37.6 score.

But Durant didn’t just account for over 50% of his team’s total points; he impacted the game on both sides of the ball, a performance emblematic of just how dominant he’s been this season.

Durant predominantly attacked Orlando from the two areas of the floor he’s been the most dangerous in—at the rim and in the midrange.

His mastery from those two zones is in large part why the Nets are +20.6 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Durant on the floor, the third-highest offensive on/off ranking in the league behind only Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry. On the season, KD’s averaging 30 points per game, seventh-best in the association, on 65.9% true shooting, which sits behind only Curry and Jokic for players that take at least 12 shots per contest.

Though his rim attempts have decreased since landing in Brooklyn compared to his years in Golden State and Oklahoma City, Durant’s been extremely shrewd at picking when to attack the basket and how to finish cleanly once doing so. His 81% shooting at the rim to start the year would be a career-high if held consistent over the course of a full season, and it’s also a top-four mark among players that have taken at least 60 shots in the restricted area this season.

Again, it isn’t that he’s scoring at the rim at an incredibly high volume; despite having a top-10 usage rate of 31.3%, his 207 total drives on the season isn’t even a top-25 mark amongst his peers. No, it’s his selection process as a downhill player that has guided him to such high marks at the basket, similar to what excellent pitch recognition can do for baseball players with a high on-base percentage.

Durant’s also been great at absorbing and finishing through contact on his drives. His 40.5% free-throw rate is his highest since his MVP season in 2014, and his 22 total “and-1” finishes inside the arc are the fourth-most in the NBA behind free-throw merchants DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Ja Morant. That skillfulness for maneuvering toward the basket and drawing contact like he’s magnetized was on full display against the Magic.

Still, what makes Kevin Durant Kevin freakin’ Durant is the sheer level of hysteria he can cause from the in-between zone on the floor. He’s shooting 61% from the short midrange, a career-high mark that leads the NBA for players that have taken at least 40 short-range middies. Here’s another fun stat: Durant has hit more total midrange shots (155) than six teams, yes, teams in the NBA.

Monday was the full pu pu platter experience of Durant’s midrange mastery. He faced up from both sides of the floor, peppering in shots from the left and right short corners. Durant hit numerous turnaround shots against Orlando’s jumbo frontcourt. His super-sized crossover made multiple appearances, and his hesitation dribble nearly sent Magic defenders stumbling into poor Mr. Whammy (okay, I made that last part up).

There was a play at the end of the third quarter in which Durant drove hard to the rim, only to yo-yo the ball behind his back into his shooting pocket for a midrange bucket (plus the foul). Even nastier was his hesitation move just a few possessions later; KD faked as if he was going to elevate into a pull-up three by placing his hand over the ball, but then he zipped into an elbow jumper. His fourth-quarter fadeaway bucket over skyscraping Bol Bol while wedged in the corner might have been the nuttiest made shot of them all.

And look, while he is having a down year from distance at just 34.6%, which would be the lowest three-point shooting percentage since his rookie season, the 14-year veteran is showing some signs of life from behind the arc. KD has shot a much more Durantian 37.5% from deep in his last five games and went 3-of-5 versus the Magic.

He’s been every bit the part of an MVP-level creator; the epicenter of a superstarian ecosystem; an offense unto himself. His 1.10 points per possession off isolations ranks in the top six among players with at least three isolations per contest. He’s been even better as a pick-and-roll creator, accounting for 1.18 points per possession as a PnR ball-handler, behind only Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo for players with at least three pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions per game. His ability to lace bounce passes, perhaps his best skill as a PnR playmaker, gave Nic Claxton numerous opportunities to attack Orlando’s retreating defense.

What made this performance so special was Durant’s two-way impact. As I wrote earlier this month, the recent stretch since Jacque Vaughn became head coach is the best Durant has looked defensively in a Nets uniform. That held true against Orlando.

Durant took on the task of guarding Orlando’s most dangerous creator—Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero—similar to how he did against Luka Doncic in the second half of the most recent game against Dallas.

KD hounded Orlando’s incredibly physical #1 overall pick into tough looks, like fadeaway jumpers falling out of bounds and double-clutch turnaround shots versus tough contests.

Opponents are shooting 6.1% worse than their expected values when defended by Durant, the 7th-best mark in the NBA for players who have contested at least 200 shots (other names on this list include Draymond Green, Jarrett Allen, and teammate Nic Claxton. So yeah, pretty impressive company for KD).

His two blocks against the Magic were of the highlight variety. First, he screeched in from the weak side like a Formula-1 racer and engulfed a daring layup from R.J. Hampton. Then, KD blocked a three-point shot from 7-foot-freaking-2 Bol Bol. Absolutely wild.

If the season were to end today, Durant’s 4.3% block percentage would be a career-high. Crazy stuff for a 34-year-old with over 35,000 total minutes under his belt who is still just three years removed from tearing his Achilles tendon.

Watching Durant on Monday, it seems almost impossible that this is the very same guy that put in a trade request just five short months ago. Credit to him: He’s been incredibly engaged on both ends and has consistently encouraged his teammates while leading the pack for a Nets team that has undergone its fair share of controversy to start the year.

Assuming his Nets, 6-4 in their last 10 games, can rise up the standings, Durant has as good of a chance as anyone to add yet another MVP award to his already jampacked trophy case.